Denen returning to place that ‘built him’


WASHINGTON COURT HOUSE — There was some consternation when the Washington Blue Lions parted with girls basketball coach Samantha Bihl.

Then, after a possible nominee’s name was withdrawn from consideration, that left supporters of the girls basketball program wondering who might be the next candidate. It’s a name from the recent past, as well as from a more distant era.

John Denen is returning for a second time to where no doubt his heart has always been: Washington High School.

Denen was one of the coaches approved by the Washington Court House City Schools Board of Education by a 5-0 Monday.

“I greatly appreciate that,” Denen said of the board’s unanimous backing.

Denen coached the Lady Lions beginning in 1988. He left and went on to other coaching positions, of which there are several. Denen returned to coach the Lady Lions in 2009. Along the way, Denen departed again from Washington and continued in the field of education and the discipline of coaching.

One of the tasks in his career was putting in place a football program at Manchester High School in Adams County. Now it’s 2023 and Denen is back at his alma mater to coach yet another generation of young people. It’s the vocation that’s filled Denen’s adult life — coaching, mentoring young people. He is ready to share his knowledge and love of basketball to a new generation of Lady Lions.

At one point, Denen joked, “We believe in recycling.”

Denen, a 1978 Washington graduate, quickly recalled from his previous tenure that it was Anna Frazier who scored the first basket in the current high school gym, in 2009.

“We’re allowed to give 10 to 15 days of instruction, so we gave some instruction today,” Denen said. “It’s pretty simple. We’ve gotten such a late start … this is the third time I’ve been together with them. They’re Washington Court House kids, they are great kids. I can see that right away. We have to get the focus back on the kids. The kids want to be in the gym. The kids want to have some fun and learn some basketball. If we have fun and play hard, we’ll be alright, basketball wise.”

As for what the schedule is for this summer, Denen said he’s looking at his team participating in at least one shootout.

“The kids were in (for open gym) a few times before I was hired,” Denen said. “I think it’s important for me as a varsity coach to get to look at the kids. I want to formulate a vision of, ‘yeah, I think we can do this; I think we do that with the group.’ “It’ll be important in late October when we really start to implement that plan.”

Denen wasn’t sugar-coating the road set before him and the Lady Lions.

“It’s going to be tough in the beginning,” Denen said. “I kind of compare it to when I coached boys basketball here. The football team was very successful, so we got a late start to the season. So, I have some experience with that at a couple of places. It’s important that we reach out to the kids and let them know they are welcome.”

With it being extremely early in the process, Denen said, “I’m pleased with our numbers. They continue to grow. We’re around 15 high school kids. I think there are a few more out there. We have one who is injured.”

Denen said he will be accepting substitute teaching assignments in the upcoming school year. In that way he can be a presence on campus during the day.

“We’ll walk the hallways, you know,” Denen said. “I’m going to do some substitute work. Every school district needs subs right now. When basketball season gets here, I’ll be here a lot more. We’ll make this work. ”I’ve always enjoyed that, from day one, teaching school.

“We need to get kids in the gym,” Denen continued. “I told the kids that back in 1988, the first open gym I ever had, only one girl showed up. Her name was Mindy Puckett. We worked on some things. I told her, ‘You bring two more people with you and I’ll see if I can find three more.’ We got some kids interested and we made a lot of progress.

“Coming back in 2009, our numbers were down. Three years later we were playing a freshman schedule. We had 25 kids, something like that. I think it’s going to be a little more difficult now because we have so many more sports going on. The kids have a lot more opportunities and that’s a good thing. We want to grow the program. When we grew the program those other times, the kids worked hard. And the kids were loved.

“I haven’t told this group yet, but I always tell them that on the basketball court and in the locker room, I’m going to treat them like athletes. When they step off those two areas, they are like my daughters; they’re like family. I think that still works today. People in this community know that I’ve always taken care of the kids. Whether it was in the classroom or in basketball. I’m still committed to that today. The people who have reached out to me already have been very, very positive. I got a text from my daughter, ‘Oh my gosh, dad, you are loved.’ I feel the love, I do. That’s one of the reasons (for taking the job). This place built me. It’s Washington City Schools and the town of Washington Court House. When little Johnny Denen got out of line, people put me back in line. This town built me and no matter where my life took me in my journeys, I was from Washington Court House, Ohio.”

Denen and his wife, Jacqui, who will soon celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary, currently live in Delaware, but are looking for a residence in Washington C.H.Denen was most recently the head girls basketball coach at Logan Elm High School in the 2020-21 season.

“I love building basketball programs,” Denen said. “Every place I’ve been, we’ve had some great teams. I love getting kids excited about playing basketball. I like to play eight to 10 players, rotate them in and out and keep them fresh. It’s about kids. I was never shy about tough situations. It’s about kids. Most high school basketball teams don’t have a Hannah Haithcock or Valerie King. They don’t have a Christy Lorente or Angie Gray.

“Every kid has value in my basketball program. They have a role and they have value. If I was teaching math and I had a great math student, I would expect that math student to do more than the weakest math student. But both kids have value. Every kid has value. We’re going to talk to the kids about that a lot.”

John and Jacqui Denen have two adult children, Johnson and Jessica, and four grandchildren.

Chris Hoppes is the sports editor for the Record-Herald in Washington C.H.

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